Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In Massachusetts, as in other states, employees work at will. This means an employee can generally be fired at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all.
But there are some exceptions to the at-will rule. If your Massachusetts employer fires you for discriminatory reasons, in violation of an employment contract, or in retaliation for exercising your rights, for example, you may have a legal claim against your employer for wrongful termination.
What If You Were Illegally Fired During the Coronavirus Pandemic?
A shocking number of Americans have lost their jobs as a result of the economic downturn stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. But what if you were fired during the pandemic? Depending on the reason you were dismissed, you might have a valid claim for wrongful termination. For instance, it would generally be illegal for your employer to fire you:
- in retaliation after you complained about or reported unsafe working conditions, such as inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE), social distancing, or cleaning
- for refusing to work because you had a reasonable belief that you faced an immediate risk or death of serous physical harm due to unsafe working conditions
- for refusing to violate a legal shelter-in-place order
- for taking family or medical leave under state or federal law, including the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the California Family and Medical Leave Act (discussed below)
- because you have a preexisting condition (including your age) that makes you more vulnerable to the coronavirus, or
- because you filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits for COVID-19.
(Learn more about wrongful termination in the context of COVID-19.)
Every state’s laws on wrongful termination are different. This article covers some of the common legal grounds you might have for suing your employer in Massachusetts for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of Massachusetts employment rights, which can change as courts issue new rulings and legislators pass or modify laws. To find out the full extent of your legal claims, speak to an experienced Massachusetts employment lawyer.
Under federal law, it is illegal for an employer to fire an employee based on a protected characteristic. Federal law prohibits employers from firing employees based on race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age (if the employee is at least 40), disability, citizenship status, or genetic information. However, only employers with a minimum number of employees must comply with these laws. Most types of discrimination are prohibited once an employer has at least 15 employees. However, the minimum is 20 employees for age discrimination and four employees for discrimination based on citizenship status.
Massachusetts law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, religion, age, mental or physical disability, genetic information, sexual orientation, gender identity, and active military status. Employers with at least six employees must comply with the state’s discrimination law.
These laws also make it illegal for an employer to retaliate against you for asserting your rights. For example, if you complain to your company’s HR department that you believe you were passed over for promotion because of your age, your employer may not discipline or fire you for your complaint. Likewise, your employer cannot fire you for participating in an investigation of a discrimination complaint (no matter who made the complaint), testifying in court, or making other efforts to stop discriminatory practices.
Before filing a discrimination or retaliation lawsuit, you must file a complaint with the appropriate government agency. In Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination; the Commission has offices in Boston, New Bedford, Springfield, and Worcester. In many cases, state fair employment practices agencies will record your complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that enforces federal antidiscrimination laws. However, you should check to make sure. If not, you may also have to file a complaint with the EEOC.
If you have an employment contract promising you job security, you may not be an at-will employee. In Massachusetts, an employment contract may be written, oral, or implied. In the first two types of contracts, your employer makes express oral or written promises not to fire you for a certain period of time without good cause. In an implied contract, your employer acts in a way that creates a reasonable expectation that you would continue to be employed. For example, if your boss regularly made comments such as "you can work here as long as you like" or "you won't be fired as long as you do a good job," you may have an implied contract. If you have an employment contract, and your employer fires you without good cause, you have a legal claim for breach of contract.
It is illegal for employers to fire an employee for filing a wage claim or testifying in a wage hearing.
The minimum wage in Massachusetts is $12.75 an hour in 2020. (The amount will go up in increments until it reaches $15 per hour in 2023.) Under state and federal law, employees who work more than 40 hours a week are also entitled to overtime pay (time-and-a-half), unless they're exempt (which mostly applies to professional and executive employees). Retail employees who work on Sunday may also be entitled to time-and-a-half.
State and federal laws give employees the right to take time off work for certain civic obligations and personal responsibilities. Employers may not discipline or fire workers for exercising these rights. In Massachusetts, these rights include:
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a Massachusetts employment lawyer. A lawyer can help you sort through the facts and assess the strength of any claims you may have against your former employer. A lawyer can explain your options and help you protect your rights, whether you decide to try to get your job back, negotiate a severance package, or take your former employer to court.